You wouldn’t immediately think that a movie about David Frost’s revelatory 1977 interviews with Richard Nixon would be considered one of the biggest Oscar contenders this year. But the details of the movie might just belie that when the film gives us a dramatic reminder of what Nixon said in those interviews and what precedent it may have set for future Presidents. That particular revelation by Nixon is being shown frequently in promotional clips at the time of this writing while Ron Howard promotes the film. It’s not a secret plot twist that needs to be kept secret, yet it’s the true compelling selling point of the film. Even when you see actor Frank Langella as Nixon stating to Frost (played by Michael Sheen) that the President is above any illegality, it can’t help but pack a powerful wallop.
Yes, it’s somehow been forgotten by history that David Frost actually managed to cajole Nixon into admitting culpability in the Watergate break-in. That makes the popular Broadway play and the movie adaptation arguably more important than any other movie fare this holiday season, even though too many people might stay away from “Frost/Nixon” because they’ll initially think it’s nothing but dialogue and no action. From all reports, there’s still plenty of action (well, no car chase scenes of Nixon running away from the persistent Frost) and more than enough riveting intrigue to keep anyone interested.
More so than what actually happens in the film is the potential for what may have happened, and may still happen, within the periphery of this story. Once we see Langella’s portrayal of Nixon utter that plotting the break-in of Watergate would only be illegal outside the confines of the Presidency, we can’t help but look to the Presidents after Nixon and our current administration to see whether they happened to take that same philosophy. Or, perhaps the film is all about Nixon being a stand-alone President who found some kind of psychological solace in thinking the President is above the law.
It was that one statement Nixon made that could have influenced many young men and women watching who had aspirations toward the Presidency. I was six at the time the original interviews aired in 1977 and didn’t really have its impact hit me. However, those ten years older or more could have taken that statement by Nixon to heart, even if they didn’t agree with it. Possibly, a young George W. Bush was watching that along with Bill Clinton and the much younger Barack Obama. Not that soon-to-be Presidents Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan didn’t also ponder the possibilities of what Nixon said.
Delving into the real thoughts of a U.S. President is certainly one of the most elusive things on the planet. When a President enters office, one has to wonder how he or she defines being the most powerful person in the world. As ineffective as the President might be on some matters, the fact that they can still influence the direction of the world must change a President’s thinking to one of either heightened awareness to be ethical in every move they make…or have a hidden drive to go above the law sometimes for the supposed good of the country.
You could argue that Nixon’s statement that the Presidency is above the law was still a statement within the realms of ethics and doing the deed for the good of the country. The whole impetus to the break-in to Watergate, as you might know, was in the thought it would prevent media leaks that could damage the reputation of the President. But most people look at it as nothing but a bungled burglary by inept staffers hired by decree of a sitting President who obviously had acute paranoia issues and wanted to protect his own party affiliation.
We’ll all presume that Nixon was the only President who thought he was above the law. What if he wasn’t, though? How do we know definitively that every President since Nixon did things either clandestinely or had feelings of omniscience that led to well-known public accusations of illegal acts? Did Ronald Reagan think he was above the law in the Iran-Contra scandal? Did Bill Clinton have a God complex when he had sex with that woman…Miss Lewinky? When it comes to the Bushes, you won’t have to look far to find people who already consider George H.W. and son George W. to be the epitome of imagined power above all others.
The only one who seemed to be truly conscientious is former Prez Jimmy Carter, despite some arguing against that with Carter’s meddling and outspoken comments said lately in Middle Eastern affairs.
Of course, that leaves Barack Obama and wondering whether the Nixonian omniscience will overcome him during his first term. Since he’s still somewhat of a mystery in what makes him tick, it’s probably useless to even think of how he’ll handle being the most powerful man in the world. All indications show him being perhaps one of our most thoughtful and conscientious Presidents in many a moon. However, and akin to celebrities in Hollywood, power swallows people up sometimes–possibly no different with a President of the U.S. When Henry Kissinger once said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, you take it seriously.
Now we’ll have to wait and see what George W. Bush reveals in his post-Presidential years during inevitable interviews (maybe with an elderly David Frost). A “Frost/Bush” might get a lot of jokes for its title, but it might satisfy those who’ve been waiting for Bush to admit to the mistakes and possible abuses of power during his two terms. As Nixon found out in 1977, having a psychoanalytic session on national TV is good for a President carrying the load of guilt on his back after leaving the Presidency.
It may not just be Bush who will have to come clean in future interviews. We’re at the unfortunate point now where every single Presidency has at least one accusation of abuse of power, which seems to indicate that Nixon didn’t necessarily set a precedent. He merely was one in a continuous line of Presidents who, deep down, have alarming feelings of being capable of doing anything they want.
We mortals are the only ones who won’t know for sure, unless proven otherwise by a President’s undeniable abuse of power…